[NOTE: This is the second in a five-part series on the decisions parents face as their child approaches kindergarten age. The first article is an overview.]
My oldest son Marco will be five in July. When parents of his preschool classmates hear this, they often ask me if we’re going to send him to kindergarten this fall.
That question struck me as odd the first few times I heard it. Were these people saying Marco is “slow?” When I was growing up, we labeled a kid who didn’t go to kindergarten the first year he was eligible “held back,” and the connotation of this term was not kind. “Oh, he’s held back!” That’s what we said about the kids that were a little bigger and dumber.
Today, we have a new term for holding back a kid – “redshirting.” There’s no longer much of a social stigma attached to being a redshirted kid. Four decades ago, 96% of children six or above were enrolled in grade one or above. In 2005, that figure was 84%, with much lower figures in affluent areas. Redshirting used to be for kids that had serious problems that prevented them from handling kindergarten, but it has shifted to a strategy for parents who won’t be happy unless their kids perform at the top of their kindergarten class. In some kindergarten classes, the youngest kid was born in May or June. Meanwhile, the “cutoff” birthday – i.e. the birthday after which the school district mandates that the child be put into the following year’s kindergarten – is usually sometime in the fall.
So, what are the merits of redshirting? In this article, I’ll answer this question from two different perspectives: 1) academic advantages, and 2) the moral consequences of redshirting.
Academic Advantages of Redshirting
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell shows that Canadian hockey players with birthdays just after the January 1 junior hockey cutoff tend to do significantly better not only in junior hockey, but in the NHL as well. In other words, being the oldest player in a junior hockey cohort confers an advantage throughout the junior league, and even into professional hockey. (You can find data and more analysis on this effect here.) Gladwell conjectures that because the youngest junior league players are bigger and tend to do the best, they get special attention in those younger years that creates an advantage that endures well after their physical advantage is dissipated.
Parents have embraced this example as proof that kindergarten redshirting confers permanent advantages to children throughout their academic and working careers.
However, research on this issue has not yielded such a clear result. Deborah Stipek, Dean of the Stanford University School of Education, published the definitive report on the advantages of redshirting. The report, entitled, “At What Age Should Children Enter Kindergarten? A Question for Policy Makers and Parents,” finds that there is a slight advantage for older children in the early grades, but this advantage dissipates after a few years, well before middle school. So, parents who are interested in comparing their children with other children in first in second grade would find reasons to redshirt, but others who care much more about the later years would not.
Stipek stresses that all five-year-olds, regardless of exact maturation level, benefit from schooling. In her conclusion, she makes a plea for schools to be ready for the children they admit, rather than asking parents to prepare their five-year-olds for a certain level of “kindergarten readiness.”
I must say that I am a bit suspicious of Stipek’s finding that there is absolutely no long-term advantage to redshirting, yet my wife and I have still decided to send Marco to kindergarten this fall. Why? The answer is the moral consequences of redshirting.
Moral Consequences of Redshirting
Children who are redshirted have a built-in advantage over children who are not redshirted because they’re older. Especially in the early years, even six or twelve months makes a big difference in terms of cognitive, emotional, social, and physical maturation.
Redshirting is analogous to kids on ADHD drugs or kids whose parents who have donated handsomely to a university. Kids who take ADHD drugs but aren’t really ADHD have a built-in advantage in concentrating. Kids whose parents are big donors of a university have a built-in advantage in getting into that university.
My fundamental problem with redshirting Marco, who is not seriously missing any developmental minimums for kindergarten, is that doing so would make him like the kid taking ADHD drugs who doesn’t need them or the child of deep-pockets donors. He would always think of himself as age-privileged, so he could never be certain if his accomplishments relative to other kids at school were due to that advantage or to his merit.
To the extent possible, I’d like Marco to think that he makes all his own breaks. The empowerment he feels from believing he is in control of his destiny is worth way more to me than the fleeting thrill he gets out of a higher class rank in first and second grade.